The Compassionate Firm

Oct 30, 2000

Is your firm a compassionate firm? Do you choose what’s humane over what’s best financially in certain situations? And what difference does that make, anyway? Business is business. And we all know that to be a good businessperson, you have to be cool and unemotional, right? Wrong. My own family had a crisis recently, and I got a chance to see how compassionate our company is. And after experiencing the good side of compassionate treatment myself, the conclusion I came to is this: Being a compassionate firm may be all you have to offer your people. Other organizations, like Soontogopublic, Inc. or MEGACORP, can ostensibly offer infinitely more career paths, better pay and benefits, and get-rich-quick stock option opportunities to your people. But if you can show your employees and the outside world that your firm has some higher values other than just making a buck, I’m convinced it will help you keep your workforce and free up the flow of bucks from clients who appreciate that. So what are some of the ways that an A/E/P or environmental firm can demonstrate its compassion? Here are a few: How people are let go. I once worked at a firm that had to cut staff. After we went around to all of the offices and departments, we got a list together of who had to go. In one department, there was a senior engineer who was on the list. This particular fellow had left work at the end of the day to get ready to leave on a family vacation the next. His boss, the department manager, called him at home that evening and asked him to stop by the office on his way out of town the next morning. So with the motor idling, and the employee’s entire family waiting, this guy went upstairs to see his boss where he was promptly escorted into another room and told he was being laid off. This is an example of how not to be compassionate. The guy should have been allowed to enjoy his vacation before being canned. And by not being at all sensitive to this situation, the department manager was vilified (perhaps justly) by his people and eventually thrown out of the firm himself! How personal problems are dealt with. Someone’s spouse takes off with a new lover leaving your employee with a house full of young children. An employee’s daughter is injured at a school sports event and is temporarily bed-ridden. A principal’s parent dies suddenly. These situations, as inconvenient as they may be for the business, happen in A/E/P and environmental firms every day. So how sensitive should the firm be to the individual employee who needs to be cut some slack? I say it depends. More than anything it depends on the past relationship of that specific employee to the company over time. If it’s been good, then the firm should try to help out and give the employee whatever time he or she needs. If it’s not been so good, then the waters are a lot muddier. It takes good judgement. Is this employee someone who always has personal problems that get in the way of work? How legitimate are they? How likely are they to continue? I’d be more lenient for long-time employees, those who want special treatment for the first time, and newly hired employees (it could just be bad luck) than I would others. How aging workers are treated. I won’t even attempt a discussion of the legal aspects surrounding this issue, particularly forced retirement at a certain age. But what about the moral, humanitarian aspects of how workers who may not be as effective as they once were are dealt with in their sunset years? There may be ways to push them out, but is that really best? What does that say to the other employees about how they will likely be treated if they stay until the end of their own careers? Especially in the labor-tight market that we are operating in right now, it’s critical to find a place for everyone who has been a loyal servant to the company over the years, if you can. Maybe Old Joe doesn’t need to be the boss any more, but can he still sell work? Or maybe Septuagenarian Sally can’t manage the word processing pool any longer, but could she still help out a couple of the principals? Or maybe Geriatric Gerry isn’t as sharp as he once was, but could he be useful 25 hours a week? If you want to be compassionate, you have to recognize the fact that many of those in the A/E/P and environmental businesses identify themselves as an “architect,” “engineer,” “planner,” “surveyor,” or “scientist,” and to rip that away from them could ruin them. I’d work hard trying to find a role that allows the employee to be useful. And as long as your firm is in a position where demand is growing and talent is in short supply, you’d better consider your alternatives. Originally published 10/30/2000.

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